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March 04, 2004

ARCHIVE: State Employees in Politics


INTRO: Being in the Nevada State Legislature is not a full-time paid position. In fact, legislators rely on campaign donations to act in their official duties while in session. So when not in session lawmakers must have other jobs in order to survive. But there's one job they can't do. This week the state's Attorney General issued an opinion that legislators can't work for state government. Yesterday the opinion prompted Ray Rawson to resign from his position as a Dental Hygiene Professor at CCSN. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

PLASKON: Most of the state's legislators have other jobs. Many keep earning their salaries during the legislative session, but not Republican legislator Ray Rawson. He worked for two branches of government: The executive branch as a professor at CCSN and legislative branch as a Nevada Senator. He didn't think it was appropriate to take pay for both at the same time. So he'd take leave from CCSN while in legislative session. It came at a price.

RAWSON: It cost me my salary and retirement benefits each and every time I took an unpaid leave of absence every time I served in the Senate. I refinanced my home and depleted my savings so that I could report to work on the first day of every legislative session.

PLASKON: Other legislators also employed by state agencies weren't willing to make that sacrifice and took pay from both jobs raising a public debate over whether they are working for the state or the public who elected them. Meanwhile in Carson City the State Attorney General received a request for an opinion as to weather it is even legal for someone to work for the executive branch as a state employee and serve on the legislature at the same time. Responding to that request, Attorney General Brian Sandoval found a 37-year-old Nevada Supreme Court decision that members of the judicial branch can't function in the legislative branch.

SANDOVAL: Any ministerial function no matter how harmless you can not allow one person in one branch to perform the functions of another branch. So that is where it came, it would be considered a violation of the separation of powers doctrine within the Nevada constitution.

PLASKON: Sandoval interpreted that case in an opinion this week that state employees can't serve in the legislature no matter how small their role as an employee of the executive branch.

SANDOVAL: This is not something that I took any pleasure in. We went all the way back to the federalist papers and in 1788 the founding fathers were very concerned about the overlap and separation of powers.

PLASKON: Among Sandoval's research concerning the overlap of government branches, the 1967 case explains that the legislature enacts the laws and the executive branch carries them out. Since Rawson served in both branches the professor technically had dual power, law making and enforcement. That's not legal according to the Attorney General's opinion. But the Supreme Court hasn't considered if state employees whether from the Department of Transportation, or professors like Rawson really represent the decision making powers of the executive branch. Even so, Senator Rawson resigned from his position at CCSN because he said, those are the new rules set in the opinion by the Attorney General. Crystal Wood is one of Rawson's 60 students was in class when he made the announcement.

WOOD: I mean it makes sense. It's all just politics, I think he loves teaching and it is re-election and for the good of the people I think he would rather serve the public in that way right now.

PLASKON: Rawson says he will now have more time to walk precincts defending his seat against challenger Assembly member Bob Beers. Beers explains electing teachers or other state employees like Rawson to the legislature creates a conflict of interest because they can create law and vote to raise taxes that benefit their employer. But he admits Nevada's other legislators who are business owners, attorneys and ranchers often vote in favor of their industries too.

BEERS: That's not anything unique to our government employee legislators.

PLASKON: Part of the real problem Beers says is that there are simply too many state and local government employees in the legislature - a disproportionate number to the population. So he'd like to see not just state, but local government employees disallowed from serving on the legislature too. The Attorney General's decision affects 5 state employees who serve on the legislature: Two from CCSN, a University Professor, a University manager, and a Public Utilities Commissioner. The Attorney General says it'll take court action to remove them from the legislature and confirm that the state's more than 20-thousand employees are banned from also serving in the legislature.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

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